Candidates' Theme Songs Set Campaign Tone

Motown-era favorites, Elvis Presley and Abba among the candidates' theme songs.


Feb. 1, 2008 — -- For years presidential campaigns have used theme songs to set the tone, underscore their candidate's message and frame a candidate's personality

In his second bid for the Republican Party's nomination, Sen. John McCain has played the Swedish disco group Abba's "Take a Chance on Me," Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good" and more recently, the theme song to the movie "Rocky."

At a time when voters routinely tell pollsters they want "change," Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign has blasted "Blue Sky" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters with the lyrics: "Yes, you can change the world, she stands and she won't back down."

Campaigning as a Washington outsider, former Gov. Mitt Romney plays the dance remix to Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" to emphasize his "take action" style.

Campaigning in East Los Angeles Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama tailored his music to the predominantly Hispanic audience, playing Ricky Martin favorites and Shakira.

The various candidates running for president this year may have different policy platforms, but their campaign playlists all have similarly upbeat, catchy popular tunes designed to energize their supporters.

"What candidates are looking for in the pop songs they choose is nothing horribly offensive and something uplifting, something energetic, something that makes them seem youthful," said Brian Hiatt, associate editor of Rolling Stone magazine.

While all of the campaigns attempt to select toe-tapping, energizing tunes, sometimes the lyrics can hit a few sour notes.

After Obama's soaring victory speech after his South Carolina Democratic primary win, Stevie Wonder's 1970 hit blared from the loudspeakers: "Here I am, baby! Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours!"

The Motown-era, feel-good classic often plays at Obama's rallies, but the song is actually about a cheating lover trying to plead his way back into a woman's heart: "Then that time I went and said goodbye/Now I'm back and not ashamed to cry/Oooh baby/Here I am/Signed, sealed delivered, I'm yours."

The Illinois senator also plays Aretha Franklin's "Think" and U2's popular song "The City of Blinding Lights."

However Franklin's "Think" is a warning to a straying lover rather than a call to political consciousness: "It don't take too much high IQs to see what you're doing to me /You better think (think) think about what you're trying to do to me."

Romney's theme song "A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley contains far more explicit lyrics than perhaps the candidate who touts his "family values" would have liked: "A little less conversation, a little more action please/All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me?Close your mouth and open up your heart and baby satisfy me."

Music experts say it's a mistake to take the campaign songs too literally.

"Looking too deeply into these songs can be misleading," Hiatt said. "It's often a very superficial thing that they're taking from the use of these songs."

In today's era of personality-driven political campaigns, songs can take on new significance.

McCain's use of the Swedish disco tune "Take a Chance on Me" may reflect the iconoclastic Republican's maverick side. It's also a song he truly likes.

McCain told New Hampshire voters before the primary that Abba is one of his personal favorites.

"I'm old fashioned in music and way behind the times on music," McCain said.

"I like Frank Sinatra. My wife is incredibly embarrassed that I would say that I like Abba! Nobody likes Abba, everybody dislikes Abba but they've sold more records than anybody in the history of music."

In an early online contest Clinton supporters chose Celine Dion's "You and I" as her campaign theme song, but the campaign hasn't played that in months.

Recently Clinton has been closing with Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin Care of Business" at the end of her rallies and more sporadically, Gloria Estefan's "Get on Your Feet."

Her campaign, which has highlighted her historic campaign in its pitch to women voters, has been playing "9 to 5," Dolly Parton's 1980s women workers' lament of the proverbial glass ceiling: "Workin 9 to 5/What a way to make a livin?/Want to move ahead/But the boss won't seem to let me in/I swear sometimes that man is out to get me."

"Clinton is using a lot of female singers and female-themed songs and it may solidify her base of female supporters," said Bernie Heidkamp, contributing editor of, an online blog that examines the intersection between politics and popular culture.

Some songs are picked to give a candidate extra pizzazz.

Rolling Stone's Hiatt said that one of the best campaign theme songs was 2004 Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's use of Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender."

"It obviously wasn't good enough to get him elected but — maybe it provides something the candidates can't provide in their own speech or in their own presentation, and that was one song that was exciting, which John Kerry was not," Hiatt said.

Springsteen's songs are a favorite on the campaign trail. Before he dropped out of the 2008 race, former Sen. John Edwards, who campaigned on an anti-poverty message, used Springsteen's song "The Rising" with the stirring lyrics: "Come on up for the rising/Come on up, lay your hands in mine/Come on up for the rising."

However the candidates' message rarely merges with the artist's intended message. Springsteen has said "The Rising" album was about the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee has followed the well-worn Republican path of using seemingly patriotic songs.

In 2004, George W. Bush's campaign theme song was the cowboy country tune "Only in America" by Brooks and Dunn.

Huckabee's campaign sometimes plays Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home," John Mellancamp's "Ain't That America," Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" and even Springsteen's "Born in the USA" — a song that is frequently mistaken as a patriotic ode. It's actually about the struggles faced by Vietnam veterans when they returned home.

During the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan used "Born in the USA" and Springsteen, an ardent Democrat who campaigned against George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, demanded he stop.

"In general, Republican candidates should probably lay off 'Born in the USA,'" Hiatt said. "I can't believe that memo hasn't gotten through yet."

Years ago candidates hired songwriters to come up with original, or semi-original songs.

Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat elected after the Civil War, and his running mate Adlai Stevenson had the song " Hurrah, Hurrah for Cleve and Steve."

Franklin D. Roosevelt's official campaign song was "Row, Row, Row With Roosevelt" but the song "Happy Days Are Here Again" — written for a film — quickly became the lyrical symbol of FDR's promise of a New Deal.

Frank Sinatra changed the lyrics of his 1959 hit "High Hopes" to cheer on John F. Kennedy: "Everyone is voting for Jack/Cause he's got what all the rest lack/Everyone wants to be back/Jack/Jack is on the right track/Cause he's got high hopes."

But these days, campaigns are content to select a safe song that appeals to a broad audience.

Comedian Jon Stewart poked fun at candidate theme songs in a Comedy Central clip that is circulating on the Internet.

Stewart shows video of Obama and Clinton walking into the Democratic National Committee meeting in February. The audio from the "Jesus Christ Superstar" theme song is edited in over Obama's images.

"That's a little on the nose," Stewart jokes. For Clinton's entrance, he plays the rap song "My Milkshake" by Kelis: "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard."

However, pop culture analysts say candidates usually rely on safe choices.

"Personality-driven politics is going to push you into an inane pop music realm," Heidkamp said.

But Hiatt noted that Presley's music used to be considered controversial, but has now become ubiquitous.

"Maybe in 50 years people will be using [Eminem's] 'The Real Slim Shady' as their campaign song and no one will blink twice."

ABC News' Talal Alkhatib, Kevin Chupka, Eloise Harper, Bret Hovell, Sunlen Miller, Alberto Orso and Matt Stuart contributed reporting.

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